Immigration

What’s happened since our report on sex abuse in the pot industry

Emily Rothman of Florida throws her pack into a truck that will take her to a friend’s pot farm in Garberville, Calif. She said all the women she knows have been warned of things to watch out for when coming to the area for work. Credit: CREDIT: Sarah Rice for Reveal

All through the fall, hopeful marijuana trimmers have continued to pour into California’s Emerald Triangle for coveted jobs clipping buds on pot farms. If they haven’t read our investigation, they may not know about the dangers they face.

But is anyone doing anything about it? The California Growers Association has condemned the culture of silence, calling for more resources for workers and training for law enforcement. Others are betting on Proposition 64, the legalization initiative that would bring more growers – and their labor practices – out of the shadows and into the mainstream.

Here’s what else has happened since Reveal from The Center for Investigative Reporting published and aired the story in early September:

The community took action

Four groups in Humboldt, Mendocino and Nevada counties put together and distributed lists of safety tips for “trimmigrants,” as migrant marijuana trimmers are known, including one issued by the fake “Department of Trimmigration,” a local resident who said he was inspired by our investigation.

“Never forget how remote much of Humboldt is,” one pamphlet reads. “There is no transportation, and limited or no cell reception in the hills. Make sure a family member or friend knows where you are.”

Americans for Safe Access created a handout with safety advice for prospective marijuana trimmers, including an emergency hotline. Credit: Americans for Safe Access

In Nevada County, a group set up an emergency hotline, safe house and ride system for sexually abused trimmigrants. To spread awareness, group members met with local medical staff and law enforcement. In southern Humboldt County, concerned citizens printed out Reveal’s story and left it around town, everywhere from the library to the laundromat. They started a Facebook group to brainstorm solutions. Another group set up a table near downtown Garberville, offering safety tips and a list of local resources for anyone in need.

Groups from as far as Washington state and Illinois contacted Reveal to ask how they could help. A local foundation hosted two workshops on working safely in the marijuana-growing industry.

“Don’t let greed or your need cloud your judgment,” Brandie Wilson, co-founder of the Humboldt Area Center for Harm Reduction, told a room full of women during the workshop. “A lot of times, trimmers need so much because they’re broke, and they’ll make poor decisions because of lack of funds.”

Next up? Locals in Humboldt County are recruiting volunteers to help workers report sexual abuse to law enforcement. And in Nevada County, one grower is working to establish an employment center where trimmers can apply for jobs with growers who have been vetted, a model she’s hoping to spread to other counties.

Women broke their silence

As the story spread around social media, friends shared with friends, urging trimmers to be careful on their next journey into pot country. Some shared their own experiences of abuse during grow season.

As Reveal’s story about sexual abuse in the marijuana-growing industry spread around social media, friends shared with friends, urging trimmers to be careful on their next journey into pot country. Credit: Facebook.com

One former trimmigrant who read the story decided enough was enough: For the first time, she reported her experience to law enforcement and shared her story with Reveal (which does not name sexual abuse victims).

After the woman lost her job as a preschool teacher in Salt Lake City, a friend told her about the money to be made in pot country – as much as $300 a day. She had only $20 in her pocket when she arrived in Garberville three years ago. A man picked her up in town and drove her hours into the mountains of nearby Mendocino County, she told us.

It was a gigantic grow, she recalled, and likely illegal. There was no toilet, no shelter, no running water. The managers were men, and almost all of the trimmers were women.

Alcohol seemed more plentiful than food, the woman said, and drugs and partying were constant. One night, she went with one of the managers to his tent.

Reveal’s report on sexual abuse at pot farms in California’s Emerald Triangle got residents to discuss the issue on social media. Credit: Facebook.com

“I was lonely out there and I just wanted to cuddle with somebody,” she said. When he became “super aggressive,” she told him no, pushed him away and tried to leave, but she said he pulled her inside, held her down and raped her.

The next morning, she told her boss she wanted to leave. He agreed but said he couldn’t pay her until the end of the season. Many of her co-workers at the grow did not believe her rape allegation. But she said she was broke, without any way to get back home, so she stayed.

“I will never go back there. It’s not a safe place for women at all,” she said.

After the woman filed a report with the Mendocino County Sheriff’s Office in late September and urged others to share a post about her experience that she put on her Facebook page, more women began to come forward. Two others told us they were assaulted by the same man. One trimmer said he forced his way into her tent and she spent the entire night trying to fight him off.

“It was just really violating and disgusting,” she recalled of the abuse two years ago, then explained her frame of mind: “This isn’t just some guy touching me. It’s the guy I work for, who if I piss off, doesn’t have to pay me the four grand I’m already owed.”

That woman did not turn to law enforcement; she said she had little faith in them and worried that doing so would lead to a raid and repercussions for other workers.

But she was among those who blamed the abuses in part on the industry’s still-illegal nature.

“Unfortunately, it goes with the territory of an unregulated, lawless culture,” she said. “And unfortunately, it also comes with the territory of lonely, insecure men with a lot of money living out in the wilderness, losing their sense of humanity and women as people.”

Officials condemned the abuse

Lawmakers in the Emerald Triangle lauded Reveal’s coverage, yet largely gave law enforcement a pass.

“These abuses, it’s disgraceful and absolutely indefensible. It needs to be a priority for law enforcement,” said Assemblyman Jim Wood, a Democrat who represents parts of Del Norte, Trinity, Humboldt and Mendocino counties.

Only one supervisor from Mendocino County responded to requests for comment.

“I don’t doubt that there are a significant number of crimes, such as those you describe, that go unpunished,” said Supervisor Dan Hamburg, who declined to offer solutions. “The supervisors set the budget of the sheriff’s office, but we normally don’t tell him how to do his job.”

Mendocino County Sheriff Tom Allman did not respond to multiple requests for comment.

“The biggest problem is the secrecy around the trade and the culture of secrecy, the culture of complicity. So the fact you’ve done this is really important,” said Humboldt County Supervisor Estelle Fennell, who represents southern Humboldt, the county’s largest marijuana-growing region.

Fennell said the secrecy has hobbled the sheriff’s office because most victims or witnesses don’t report or don’t cooperate with investigations. Meanwhile, deputies are overwhelmed by crime.

“They’re stretched thin,” she said. “But I do not excuse somebody mistreating a victim or a witness. I do not excuse that, and I would hope to hold law enforcement to very high standards in that regard. I do feel strongly about that. It’s horrible.”

Fennell was referring to the case of Kailan Meserve, a Petrolia grower convicted in April of raping a trimmer. Petrolia residents had filed numerous complaints with the sheriff’s office about how Deputy Michael Hass investigated and treated the victim, including the allegation that he did not allow her to bring in an advocate when she made her rape report.

Kailan Meserve of Petrolia, Calif., shown in his mugshot, eventually was found guilty of 15 felony counts, including rape and false imprisonment. He was sentenced to 23 years in prison. Credit: Courtesy of the Humboldt County Sheriff’s Office

Afterward, Hass told the victim that he would not be filing charges or a restraining order. He already had interviewed Meserve in Petrolia and neglected to collect evidence.

Hass previously told Reveal that he disagreed with the complaints and that he did not know that the woman accompanying the victim was an advocate. Humboldt County Undersheriff Billy Honsal called Reveal’s coverage fair and criticized the department’s investigation.

“Unfortunately in this case, I don’t believe the survivor of this whole thing was treated in a way that was respectful,” he said. He declined to discuss disciplinary action, but confirmed that Hass now is assigned to prisoner transport and no longer interviews rape victims or conducts investigations.

“With this deputy, it’s not going to happen again,” he said.

At the same time, Honsal also defended the department’s drug raid program, which receives the lion’s share of department resources. He said it’s how they combat the illicit trade.

“That’s the only way we can keep some kind of a lid on things,” he said. “Believe me, we see it overflowing here. It’s boiling here. We have more marijuana grows than we could ever deal with here.”

Some officials are gambling on Proposition 64

Will legalization put a stop to worker abuse? That remains to be seen, but some state lawmakers and local officials have high hopes.

Humboldt County supervisors said they already believe the industry is changing, thanks to medical marijuana regulations that took effect last year.

Under that law, Supervisor Ryan Sundberg said legal medical growers have to be inspected, provide bathrooms and issue 1099s – a tax form for independent contractors – among other requirements.

As more growers enter the mainstream, Sundberg suggested they’ll begin taking their product to processing facilities, rather than picking up workers in town. The isolated nature of the job is what places many trimmigrants at risk, he said.

Fennell speculated that if the new proposition passes, people also might be more likely to report illegal activity to law enforcement and cooperate in investigations.

Not everyone is convinced that growers are ready to go mainstream, though. As proof, Honsal – the undersheriff – points out that only a fraction have registered with Humboldt County, the first step toward becoming a licensed medical grower beginning in 2018.

Even if Proposition 64 passes, weed will remain illegal under federal and many state laws. Honsal suspects many growers will continue to chase larger profits on the black market.

“People are comfortable with staying on the black market because that’s where they think the money is,” he said. “It’s troubling.”

If the initiative passes, many small growers also believe they’ll have no other choice but to remain on the black market to prevent getting priced out by the boom in legal large-scale grows.

Wood, the assemblyman, said he believes the black market will remain strong in the Emerald Triangle, in part because law enforcement lacks the resources and money to crack down on scofflaw growers. He pledged to make special funding for law enforcement a priority in the next legislative session.

“As long as we have a black market, unfortunately, some of that is going to continue,” he said. “As this industry becomes more and more legitimized, we need the resources to go to help with some of these things.

“My hope is that it begins to change. It’s just not going to happen overnight.”

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